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Sunday, July 01, 2007

What I've Learned About Buying an HDTV

I just finished my degree recently. To celebrate, my parents bought me (well, went halfway on, anyway) a new HD television to replace the one I lost in the fire. It is the Sony KDS-50A2000, their entry level "SXRD" set (which makes it their least expensive top of the line set). Now, I had known what sort of television I wanted for many moons before this, but a lot of people are just lost in the woods when it comes to stuff like this. Since everyone comes to me with questions about it, why not "blog" about it, as the kids are wont to do nowadays?

Why HD?

OK. First things first. Why HD? I get this question a lot from people who have never seen an HDTV in action. Usually old codgers who've had their GE color set from 1972 in the living room ever since, slowly degrading, inspiring visits to the optometrist, convincing them that all those Hollywood stars wear green makeup for some reason.

Let's try and put it simply. Have you ever seen a copy from a mimeograph? You know, the sort of purple ink "ditto" sheets you might have gotten if you attended school in the 80's. The letters are kind of blurry, the sheets might be warped from the wet copy process, and they have a distinct odor. Now, have you ever seen a sheet from a good laser printer? Crisp, bright paper, not dulled by wet copying, the letters so clean and distinct that they practically read themselves. That's kind of like the difference between Standard Definition (SD) and High Definition (HD) television. Or maybe, for you visually impaired types out there, think about the difference between having your glasses off and having them on. Between a polaroid and a digital camera. Between the top of the upper deck and seats behind the plate.

Go to a bar and check out the clarity on sports. Go to a friend's house and watch a movie. Really give it a look. It's clearly superior, with every type of programming. Once you've whetted your appetite, get ready to do a little bit of research and planning.

Stage 1: Learn Before You Buy

Once you're set on getting an HDTV, it's time to answer a few questions:

What will I watch most?

This is important insofar as the "level" of set that you're going to want to shoot for. Not all HDTV's are created equal - but that's OK, because most people have different expectations. My Grandmother, for instance, was impressed by my parents' Samsung DLP rear projection set over this last holiday because it was nice and big, and provided a very clear picture for things like Jeopardy, daily soap operas, and the news. But this is all she'd likely watch - she doesn't own more than one or two DVDs, and doesn't follow sports to any large degree. Now for myself, on the other hand, I have a ton of DVDs, follow Baseball religiously, watch a bit of network TV, and have a couple of video game systems. Our needs will be correspondingly different.

How much of a stickler am I for quality?

This question relates to the first. My grandmother doesn't have the greatest eyesight. I, on the other hand, have 20/20 vision. Since I am also a connoisseur of movies, picture quality is of particular interest to me. My grandma just wants it to be big, bright and clear. So the question for the connoisseur is: what makes a great picture?

In my online reading and personal experience with various sets, I think "home theater" picture quality boils down to these essentials, in descending order of importance:
1. Contrast/Black level
2. Color fidelity
3. Resolution
4. Image processing

A deep black is essential to giving the illusion of reality to an image. When we see shadows in the real world, they're not washed out gray fields in our view. We see blackness, nothing. Things which are in the shadow, to the extent that they're visible, subtly reflect just a tad more light than the baseline darkness of the shadow. This is what we should look for in our display - both the darkest rock-bottom black we can find, as well as the ability to distinguish things just above black in an easy, realistic manner.

Color is another obvious element to a great image. We've all seen an old tube TV with green faces or purple sky. Doesn't look real, does it? The ability of a display to render vibrant, convincing colors which closely approximate reality is key. Flesh tones are especially important - if everyone looks like they've just driven 300 miles in a convertible, something is wrong.

Resolution is important inasmuch as you can actually discern it. If you're sitting less than a foot away from a 27" tube set, you know what I mean - you can see every pixel in the image, it looks like a big jumble of lighted blocks. If you're sitting 15 feet away, the image will look clear, but it will be tiny. Finding a resolution suited to your viewing environment is important. When you do it right, and hit the sweet spot of resolution for viewing distance, you're in for a treat. You've seen youtube videos, right? Pretty crappy resolution, especially when you're likely 2 feet from your monitor. But boy oh boy, when you see a high resolution image from the right distance, it's like being there (given the previous two elements of a great image being in place).

Image processing is a concept that escapes most people, until you show it to them in direct comparison/contrast examples. But it has a profound effect. "Sharpness" is the type of processing most are familiar with. The Sharpness control, used improperly, can ruin a picture by putting little white halos around every object on screen. Different companies have a panoply of processing schemes, such as Sony's "Digital Reality Creation (DRC)", Samsung's "DNiE (dynamic image enhancement)", among others. Many of these schemes can wildly influence picture quality - making things either a mushy mess or a jittery, jagged, mess of over-enhanced lines.

Where will I put the TV?

A lot of people salivate over "flat panel" televisions mounted on the wall. Plasma and LCD sets look sexy, to be sure, but it's worth considering your other options for a few reasons. Rear projection models such as DLP and LCOS can usually be had for half the price at larger sizes. While they are generally 10 to 15 inches deep, as opposed to the 4 or 5 inches of a flat panel, they usually offer comparable or better performance at a lower price. Additionally, since we all have cable boxes, DVD players, and video game systems to place within cords' reach of the set, usually an entertainment center cabinet is still the best option for placement of the set. So if you have a cabinet that's 24 inches deep in your living room anyway, what's the real benefit of the flat panel set?

Don't get me wrong, Plasma and LCD sets can look great, and certainly have the "ooh" and "aah" factor. But I think the reap projection sets on the market offer great value and performance, and don't take up any more room, given the need of placing AV equipment in cabinets (if you're pondering expensive "in-wall" installation, you're probably not reading this!).

Another thing to consider is the lighting of your "television room." Do you want your set in a bright living room with limited control of sunlight? Then you need to consider reflections which can obscure your line of sight. Most plasma sets, for instance, are equipped with a shiny, reflective screen coating, which reflects any ambient sunlight or room lighting back at you. It doesn't pay to watch only 60% of a $2500 set. Consider placement of such a TV in a darker room or one with heavy curtains, or pointing away from the incoming light.

Sound is something many ignore - but the best movie and television programming are usually encoded with 5.1 to 7.1 channel surround sound. If you want the full experience, you may want to consider a room where you can place or mount several speakers at relatively even distances from your TV. A nice rectangular room is usually good for this. There are many inexpensive home theater "in a box" systems that will provide you with all the speakers you need.

How much am I willing to spend?

This is the question that can dictate what kind of set you get. If you want to spend $1000 or less, you're either relegated to a lower-end LCD panel at a smaller size, or the best bargain on a DLP set you can find if you want something bigger. If you're budgeting up to $2000, you can find a lot of great sets. 42" LCD and Plasma sets can be found in this range, though generally in 720p flavors. 1080p Rear-pro sets can be found in this bracket at sizes up to 60". If you want 50" or more from a flat panel, $2500 and up is what you'll be spending.

Of course prices keep trending downward over time, so things constantly change. This can also lead to the "oooh, price drop!" buyer's remorse every summer. Well, you just need to accept that prices drop. Shop for the best discount you can get, be sure to pricematch big box retailers with "certified" online retailers such as vanns.com and amazon. Retailers will usually match the lowest legitimate price you can find on a set, and sometimes will kick in a little extra discount to undersell the competitor.

A note on cables: DO NOT BUY MONSTER CABLE! Monster brand products are severely overpriced and do not offer any appreciable performance benefit over less expensive "house brands." This is especially true in the area of digital cables - digital means that a signal is all encoded as 1's and 0's. As long as it gets to the set from the source, it will be a perfect image transfer, no matter what. All the "Gas injection" and "gold shielding" in the world doesn't alter whether a cable actually gets the signal there or not.

How will I get my content delivered to me?

Once you've seen enough HD to convince yourself that you want it, that it's worth it, the question is, what will you feed your new set? You need to explore the options available to you in your area.

-Most of us have access to a cable provider who has added some HD programming of late. Here, it's Comcast. They offer a "digital" cable service, and charge an extra $5 to $10 for "adding" HD channels. Personally, I think the extra fee is a ripoff, but, you can get a DVR cable box in the deal, which records your scheduled programming a la "Tivo" so you can watch it whenever you please. Most cable providers offera rudimentary HD lineup, with ESPN, your local sports cable station, Discovery, TNT, an HD startup channel such as INHD, and local HD broadcast stations.

-Satellite services are currently in hot competition with each other to outdo the other's HD offerings. DirecTV and Dish Network are scrambling to add HD channels to their lineups. Both companies currently offer 20 or so channels, and look to add up to 100 apiece by next year. If your local cable service kind of stinks or is too pricey, or you just have a bad relationship with them, it can really pay to get a dish service. They offer local HD stations (though there can be some exceptions,) everything cable offers, and usually newer cable stations that have gone digital such as National Geographic, TLC, Food, SciFi, and the like.

-If you're on a budget, but still want a fair amount of HD programming to complement your DVD or gaming with your new toy, an antenna is worthy of consideration. Back in olden times, people put rabbit ears or aerial antennas to tune in local broadcasts. Well, those days are back, because Federal mandates have required local stations to broadcast in HD for some time now. I personally own this model, an indoor/outdoor variety that pulls in most channels quite well. Traditional antennas that you still see on rooftops work as well. These will pull in whatever channels are over the air in your area. If you're near a big city, this will usually include CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, and a few other local HD stations such as WGN, CW, and the like. You can expect 10-20 channels with big networks and their various digital offshoots. Quality is usually a bit better than Cable or Dish, as well, since those services need to compress their signals to fit within their channel lineups and the bandwidth of coaxial cable. But you won't get your cable HD stations, such as ESPN, Discovery, etc.

Stage 2: Buying and Setting up

You need to set a target for what brand and model you want before you go to any stores. You do NOT want an employee who works on commission to recommend a set to you. I recommend you take your budget and look at reviews for sets within that price range. Cnet.com has useful reviews and summaries for sets which can be sorted by price. Other useful review sites are Sound and Vision and Home Theater Magazine.

720p v. 1080p

There are a lot of buzzwords floating around trying to sell various types of televisions. True HD, Full HD, blah blah blah. What you need to know is that there are two choices of resolution you can choose for your set. 1080p describes a picture composed of 1920 x 1080 pixels. 720p is a picture composed of 1280 x 720 pixels. One has a higher resolution. It's just that simple. (By way of comparison, Standard Definition TV has 640x480 pixels.) High Definition broadcasts are either in 720p or 1080i. Either type of set will display either signal. In theory, a 1080p set will show you more detail from a 1080i signal, but in practice the difference is slight, owing to the fact that most cable/dish companies don't give you a tremendously great signal to begin with. A 1080p set will certainly give you a better Blu-Ray or HD-DVD picture, since they are natively 1080p at a high quality level of compression. (More on Blu-Ray/HD-DVD later.)




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Well, that's a start. I'll update this as I think of new things to offer you, gentle readers. Until then, enjoy your HD experience! It can be a fun project for a tech-inclined person, and a good learning experience for the non-tech-savvy.

5 Comments:

Blogger MarkBraun said...

Got a question after tracking you down through Amazon and your review of the outdoor antenna. I live in norridge and have a tree line obstructing my se line o' sight. BUT I have a crawlspace where the outdoor antenna used to reside after we yanked out the chimney.

So, just how great or what problems will I encounter and how difficult will this be? We have ComCast but not their damned box and thus, can't get a lot of channels AND/or the HD channels. A total nightmare to hook up between Tivo and the DVD player. with all of the ports and plugs in the back of this set, I've finally hit my dumb wall.

And btw baseball fan, I run the otbac.com, aka the Old Timers. If you're in the city, stop by.


Thanks,
Mark Braun

1:04 PM

 
Blogger matthewweflen said...

You ought to be able to use an antenna like the Terk or Wineguard Squareshooter effectively. They do not depend on line of sight per se, since UHF and VHF signals generally pass through any conductive material (I assume your house is not lined with lead). As long as you're not behind a mountain (which, in Norridge, I think are few and far between) you shouldn't have problems with OTA signals. In the city, there are lots of tall and tall-ish buildings composed of various non-conductive metals and bricks. This is what makes it tought for us to get CBS, which is a very low power signal.

10:00 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matthew,

I came to this website after reading your review of the Sony KDS-50A2000 which we both own. Are you still as satisfied about your set? Have you had very many problems with it?

I have had difficulty with my lamp burning-out and even though I think this set has the best picture, I wouldn't recommend one. I've resolved myself to replacing
the lamp about every 3000 hours. As you know, Sony is agreeing to a class-action suit and won't make anymore of the rear-projection TVs.

Sincerely,

Thomas

8:30 PM

 
Blogger Mike said...

Matthew,

I am also wondering how you feel now about the Sony KDS-50A2000 TV which you reviewed. I would like to know if everything has continued working on your set.

I guess you know Sony is in the last stages of settling their class-action suit over this TV's deficiencies.

Best Regards,
Mike

3:50 PM

 
Blogger matthewweflen said...

I am indeed satisfied with the set. It has not exhibited any performance issues since the one early issue with a gimpy cooling fan (which was replaced under warranty). The picture has not changed in any way except for the brightness of the installed lamp (I have several spares on hand, I bought them when Sony exited the RPTV business just in case).

I suppose I am lucky in terms of the optical block problems referred to in the lawsuit. I have seen no blobs or color shifting (and believe me, I look). I am sweating it out a bit until the end date of the settlement (June 2010, AFAIK), really checking aggressively to make sure I have no issues. If even the slightest thing crops up, I will certainly avail myself of the extended Sony warranty service.

But I'm starting to feel like there will be no problems. I've had the set for 2 years now, and it has seen relatively heavy use. If those optical block problems are caused by the heat of the lamp, I would think I would have seen it already in mine.

So my plan is basically this: I have 3 spare lamps, which ought to give me 6-9 years of high quality viewing before they're somewhat dim (if I didn't care about brightness, I imagine the figure would be more like 9-12 years). I'm going to ride this set out through my spare bulbs and not worry about replacements until they're gone.

I'll probably be looking at an LED-backlit LCD with local dimming. Sony and Samsung have sets out now which are still a bit pricey in the 50" range, but in 5 years I am sure we'll see big brand sets in the $1000-1500 range at 50 inches or more. So that will be the earliest I'll look at replacement sets, and as I said, I will try to remedy with Sony's service, and Abt's service, before replacement becomes an option.

4:36 PM

 

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